Mental health experts are urging us to get outdoors during this pandemic. As with everything else the virus has brought, this recommendation can be complicated for the chronic illness community.
I believe that it’s so important for our mental health to get out into nature! Yet going outside really can feel daunting for a number of reasons: managing medical gear (the number of times I’ve gone out and realized I forgot something crucial and crashed as a result…), fear of ticks or other triggers, and now fear of encountering someone with COVID-19.
After getting Lyme diseases in middle school, I was terrified of ticks. As an adult, when I realized how much that brief experience impacted the other conditions quietly haunting my body, I became even more afraid. It seemed everything I liked to do outside came with a risk of ticks.
On top of ticks, I fear the elements themselves. Too much sun can trigger a mast cell reaction for me. Too much movement or temperature changes can trigger my GI dysfunction and POTS, as well as joint subluxations. After getting violently ill in the woods for the third time, I decided I’d never hike again. And in the last few weeks, I can feel my body on high-alert when stepping out of my door, afraid of the invisible virus.
But today, I went for a hike! Sure, I panicked when my partner found a tick on his jeans, but we got home, did a tick check, and showered. No harm done. I stayed in tune with my body’s needs to make sure I would get home in one piece. I brought everything I’d need — a water bottle, compression socks, and my Mighty MedPlanner with just-in-case meds, an epipen, snacks, and a few face masks. (For a longer trip, I’d take a well-organized Mighty Pack — check out Chloe’s video below for packing your Mighty Pack for an outdoor adventure!)
I feel so grateful to have been able to find a balance, to be smart but not anxious when getting outdoors. For another perspective, we turned to Mighty Well Ambassador Chloe O’Neill — adventurer and founder of More Than Lyme!
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in getting outside, and how have you overcome them?
This is a big question and one I believe changes all the time, especially right now. When approaching the topic of “getting outside” I like to create a lot of space around it with room for adjustments and little tweaks here and there. You see, my relationship with the outdoors wasn’t always as straightforward as it is now. There have been times in my life where I wanted nothing to do with it because, afraid that if I did step onto the trail or even the path at the park, I would be reminded, and painfully at that, of all that I’m missing out on. Of all that I’m not making time for.
I think we can do this to ourselves when faced with something like chronic illness—it’s a defense mechanism. A way to protect our overly analytical and oftentimes judgemental minds. I say this because I think it’s important to approach the outdoors without expectation. To realize that our relationship with it will always be changing, shifting, and making room for other things. The reason why I distanced myself from it for so long was because I didn’t understand what was happening inside me and I didn’t have an immediate solution to fix it, so I suppressed and denied myself activities and places that I knew brought me joy.
Ask yourself why!
I suppose what I’m trying to say is before you push yourself to get outside, ask yourself why. Ask yourself, “what do I most need right now and how can I support that want?” And if the answer is getting outside, by all means do it! But if it’s nurturing the relationship you have with yourself in some other way, do that instead and don’t beat yourself up for it. And if you’re feeling resistant to incorporating the outdoors into your day, ask yourself those questions with as much kindness as you can, because oftentimes the answer has more to do with the relationship you have with yourself than the relationship you have with the outdoors.
It’s true, I used the outdoors has a tool to help heal, but until I dropped any expectation of the outcome, I would often return home from an adventure with a feeling of complete defeat and unworthiness; with the outdoors being so closely tied to physical and mental health, it wasn’t until I made practices like hiking, running, yoga, climbing, skiing, and backpacking my own, that I would return home feeling refreshed, grounded, and more myself.
And by that I mean I would run for 10 minutes instead of 30.
I would hike 2 miles instead of 5 while keeping to lower elevation.
I would modify certain poses in yoga to better fit how my body felt in that moment instead of only doing what I was told to do by the instructor.
I would walk, just walk.
Essentially, I would listen to what I needed most and I would give myself that, all while making sure I wasn’t comparing myself to those around me since we are all just doing our best and measuring myself up against anyone else wouldn’t do anyone any good.
So, be kind to yourself and listen to what you need right now—that I believe to be the key to creating a happy and healthy relationship with the outdoors. Also, listening to our inner needs can be one of the most difficult things to do, so also make sure you’re giving yourself grace, and plenty of it.
This is an always evolving process; how I interact with nature changes daily and entirely depends on my mental and physical health. There were times in my life when I wasn’t able to do much physical activity at all, so my “getting outside” was often as simple as opening the window or stepping onto the front porch with a hot cup of tea, letting my face turn towards the sun and soak in all the goodness that it had to offer.
The most important thing is that it makes you feel good.
How it looks or is perceived to anyone else is irrelevant. This is just about you and how you can use the outdoors to better the relationship you have with yourself, and in turn, you will naturally want to better support the outdoors just as it has supported you.
It’s a give and take. A dance that’s constantly changing it’s rhythm.
So whether you’re new to all of this or have gone through many ups and downs with the world outside your window before, base your next move off of feeling, and if that feeling involves fear, start with the opening of a window or the stepping out onto the front porch, and while you’re doing so, take time to imagine yourself in that space that brings up that fear, asking, “what is it that scares me so much and how can I better support myself now to make that future adventure less intimidating?”
Baby steps being key.
Another tool I like to use is insight from others, because I guarantee that someone else has similar fears or worries to you, and for some reason bringing them out into the open can help make them a whole lot less scary. Not to mention, just having that support of someone else “who gets it” whenever you do feel like talking about it is huge. Yes, bringing it up can be incredibly vulnerable and scary in-and-of-itself, but I promise that it’s worth it.
Regardless of where you stand or what your circumstances are, we all deserve to take the time to create our own relationship with the outdoors, as I believe it is one of the greatest tools we have to help counter not only mental and chronic illness (amongst many other things), but our day-to-day happiness as well.
Just make sure that you’re doing it for you and you alone, since that’s where the magic of it all is found.